Sally Abrams
Here's How I See It

Building is hard, disrupting is easy

Illustrative. Young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/ Flash90)

Last week, Velvel Pasternak passed away at age 85. Pasternak was a builder. By transcribing, conducting, recording, and publishing the music of Hasidic sects, he preserved a heritage that no one before him had documented. He also published some 200 collections of Yiddish and Israeli folk tunes and other genres of Jewish music.

Pasternak founded Tara Publications, which became one of the largest publishers of Jewish music. He ran the business from his Long Island home, with the help of his wife and children. This musical archive is a precious legacy to the Jewish people. What a treasure Pasternak built!

Building requires collaboration, the ability to learn from mistakes, and creativity. It takes untold effort, labor, and sweat, although builders may be the last ones to say so. Some builders even make it look easy, as if anyone could have done it. Not true.

Each generation has its builders. In this community and in my generation, Steve Lear has been and remains a dynamic and visionary builder, founding the JCRC Speakers Bureau (which I co-direct) and  Nechama-Jewish Response to Disaster. Steve is the guy with the audacious imagination who pushes us to visualize what’s possible and then galvanizes us to make it happen.

In the next generation a young standout comes to mind. Leora Maccabee created Jewfolk Media in 2009 and transformed the way this community engages with our local and global Jewish world. The TCJewfolk web and social media platform has become our go-to site, a home for original content, diverse voices, news, and communal happenings. Jewfolk Media continues to expand, adding projects that connect the Twin Cities young (and not so young) Jews to each other and to the broader community.

Some builders create programs that transform an entire generation. Birthright is one such program. Since 1999, over 650,000 young Jewish adults from 67 countries have been given the gift of a free trip to Israel. Birthright’s vision? “To ensure the vibrant future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel.”

Birthright is about connecting young Jews to our magnificent heritage, including Jews from interfaith families. Birthright reaches young people at the time of life when they are asking big questions about what they want to be. Birthright shows them they are part of an ancient people from an ancient land, a global people with a rich and beautiful faith, history, and culture. These young Jews are the next links in a long, vibrant chain….if they choose to be. Because living a Jewish life is a choice you make. Or don’t.

IfNotNow, an organization of young Jewish activists who “seek to end American Jewish support for the occupation”, and who do not take a unified stance on the question of statehood, sees it differently:

“For our entire generation, going on Birthright has been seen as a rite of passage in our Jewish journey. And, for decades, Birthright’s programming has been funded by right-wing donors and designed to obscure, rationalize, and defend the Israeli Occupation. We can no longer allow a free trip that hides the truth be synonymous with being a young Jewish person in America.”

IfNotNow garnered much media attention last summer when a few Birthright participants staged a planned walk out mid-way through the trip and went on to meet with Palestinian activists.

I expect there will be more such media moments this summer.

Disrupting is easy. Especially on a free trip.

Last week, The New York Times published a front page profile of IfNotNow, in which the organization called for a boycott of Birthright. Days later, it appears that the boycott is on hold.

“While some supported the call, others felt that Birthright was salvageable given further engagement or protests; still others felt that IfNotNow should have ignored Birthright altogether and focused on creating its own Israel trip,” wrote Twin Cities native, Aiden Pink in the Forward.

“Create its own Israel trip?” My thoughts exactly. Go find funding and build the trip you think young people should take. Or organize and fund a post-Birthright program for those who want to tackle issues that Birthright was not designed to address.

Birthright trips are not yours to disrupt in order to advance your agenda.

How fabulous that Birthright has given an entire generation of Jewish young adults this opportunity to connect meaningfully with the heritage that is their birthright.

How wonderful that the next generation is poised to do so.

How grateful we should be to the builders- the builderswho make this program possible.

About the Author
Sally Abrams is Director of Judaism and Israel Education at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has taught thousands about Israel and/or Judaism in churches, classrooms, civic groups, and Jewish communal settings.
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